First published in 2010
by Impress Books, Innovation Centre, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RN
This ebook edition first published in 2011
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© the author, 2010
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St Sebastian's University does not exist, and it should not be
with any institution of higher education in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. Sweetpea College is a similar fiction. All characters in the novel are also entirely imaginary. They have no counterparts in real life.
For Dr. Merlin Meddles and the University of Arrowsmith-St Sebastians
‘Ac yn dipyn o boendod i’r rhai s’yn credu mewn trefn’
Term had begun. A slight fog covered the ground as I walked to my first class. Even though it was only my tenth year at St Sebastian’s, this was my thirty-first year of university teaching. It was disconcerting to realize that I was now sixty years old, a senior professor. As I passed by the Student Union Building, I caught sight of my reflection in the window. I did look a bit dishevelled. My tweed suit was baggy at the knees and my shirt was frayed at the wrists. My hair had turned grey, and none of my clothes was quite comfortable at the waist any more. Still, I told myself, that is what elderly professors are meant to look like. What counts are brains, not appearance.
The class was in the Arts Building on the first floor, and as I entered I recognized some of the students from last year. But sitting in the front row was an attractive blonde undergraduate. She seemed to have my problem of bursting out of her clothes. Both her shirt and skirt were clearly too small for her and did not appear to cover her very much. Still, at sixty it was not my place to ogle my pupils. As the bells of the cathedral
struck eleven I sat down, took out my register and arranged my papers. “Good morning,” I said. “Welcome back. I hope you had a good summer.” I then took roll-call. After I finished, the blonde piped up.
“Professor Gilbert,” she said. “You forgot me. I’m Lisa.”
I looked through the list. “You’re right,” I said. “Sorry. What is your last name?” She spelled it. I added her to the list. “Right, Lisa,” I said. “Anyone else I missed?” There was silence. The course, I explained, dealt with theology and law: essentially it was about Christian ethics. I handed out the syllabus, and told the class that they should get hold of my Christian ethics textbook which had been written specially for the course. I then began my lecture. Unlike the other students, Lisa took no notes. She slumped in her chair, crossed her legs, and stared. There was a gap between the bottom of her shirt and her skirt. I noticed she had a heart-shaped tattoo around her belly-button.
Just before the end of the class, I asked if anyone had any questions. The students stirred uncomfortably. I feared I had bored them. But Lisa put up her hand. “Professor,” she said. “Are you saying that motives don’t matter? I think they do. How can an action be moral if the person’s intentions are evil?”
“That’s a good question,” I said. I briefly mentioned the ideas of the utilitarian philosophers and contrasted them with the views of Immanuel Kant. I told them that these would be the subjects of further lectures. Throughout, Lisa fiddled with her hair. She leaned forward as I explained about Kant’s
of Practical Reason
and crossed her arms. I tried not to notice that her breasts swelled underneath the pressure.
When the bell rang, the students gathered up their papers and filed out. Lisa stayed behind. “Professor,” she said. “You’re my tutor. Can I make an appointment today? I need to ask you about one of my courses.”
“Come at three,” I said. “I have a staff meeting after lunch.” I watched her saunter out of the seminar room and wondered if she were going to be a problem.
As I crossed the quad, I saw the Vice-Chancellor getting out of a new black Jaguar saloon. He was an imposing,
figure with bushy eyebrows. Professor Oliver Barraclough had previously been a Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge
before becoming a Professor of Accountancy at Leeds. After a short stint as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, he had been appointed
of St Sebastian’s. Known as a ruthless cost-cutter, he had abolished all faculties in his first term and created ten departments. At the end of the year, he sent out letters to all staff over the age of fifty-five, encouraging them to take early retirement. A few of the most distinguished professors managed to get new jobs; a number of others were seduced into
offers of enhanced pensions with part-time employment; several, like me, tossed the letters into their wastebaskets.
Lunch was being served in the Senior Common Room, located at the far end of the Old College. St Sebastian’s had been established as a theological college for missionaries during the Victorian period. Influenced by Oxford-style architecture, the original building was Gothic sandstone with pointed
. The Senior Common Room was panelled in dark oak. There were small tables with armchairs scattered throughout the room, and in the corner, a waitress served sandwiches and coffee.
I stood in the queue next to the Dean, Dr Wanda Catnip, and her secretary. She was talking animatedly about this afternoon’s meeting, giving instructions about the papers which were to be distributed. She was a small, compact, middle-aged woman who was always formally dressed. Her straight, greyish hair was cut severely round her head. Today her suit was brown tweed with a green fleck. Her first degree was from Manchester, but I suspected that she had applied to Oxford and had been rejected. Subsequently she had studied at Hull for a PhD. She had a very slight Northern accent and a definite lisp. I had always tried to be affable to her, but somehow we had never really got on. In private, my wife, who happened to be the daughter of a baronet, mocked her mannerisms mercilessly.
As we waited to be served, Wanda turned to me. “The meeting today is very important,” she announced. “We’re going to discuss the run-up to the RAE. The Vice-Chancellor wants to come to fill us in.” Before I had a chance to reply, she ordered her sandwich, took a pack of salt and vinegar crisps from a basket next to the cash register and strode off. Her secretary followed close behind.
RAE stands for the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’. Over the last decade this ordeal has plagued all university departments. Each person’s four best publications are evaluated and scored every few years; government money is then allocated on the basis of the result. In the past, departments were ranked depending on the outcome. Those academics who were left out of this exercise altogether were humiliated, and their careers severely damaged.
I ordered a cheese sandwich and a mug of coffee, and sat down next to two colleagues who were engrossed in discussion. Magnus Hamilton was one of the longest serving members of the department. Tall, balding and bespectacled, he was appointed as a lecturer in Old Testament studies. His parents had been killed in a car accident when he was in prep school, and he had been brought up by his Aunt Ursula who had sent him to Winchester. After reading politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, he went on to do a PhD in biblical archaeology. His supervisor – a distinguished Professor of Old Testament – had given him an outstanding reference, yet he had only published one article in a little-known theological journal twenty years ago. He had never been promoted, and was despondent about academic life. Next to him sat Agnes Flyte, a plump, young lecturer in systematic theology. Invariably dressed in a sweater and jeans, she had short brown hair which emphasized her hooked nose. Her revised PhD thesis had recently been published by Edinburgh University Press and had received glowing reviews in various academic journals. It was quite unreadable.
“Talking about the RAE …” I observed.
“It doesn’t really concern me,” Magnus grumbled. “I haven’t been research-active for years. Always denied study leave. Now they want to change my contract so I’ll have to teach all the bloody undergraduates all the time.”
“At least they haven’t terminated it,” I said.
“They would if they could. But they can’t. I’ve got tenure. They have to keep me. Damn Barraclough! He keeps sending me these devious little letters telling me I should think about retirement. He even offered to enhance my pension.”
“You’re not the only one,” I said. “I got the same letter. We all did. Not you, of course, Agnes. You’ve got to be over fifty-five.”
Agnes looked embarrassed and picked up a copy of
lying on the table. Magnus continued his diatribe. “Now they tell me I’ve got to have more postgraduates. I’m supposed to devise some kind of MA programme in Old
studies. I’ve even got to teach during the summer. What has academic life come to?”
“Magnus,” I said. “You constantly complain that the
is a crappy place. Why don’t you simply retire if you’ve been given a good deal? That way you’d be free of all this?”
“I’ve thought about it. But look. Even if I got a full pension, I’d only get about sixteen thousand pounds a year. And then I’d have to pay tax. It just isn’t enough to live on. I did once think of doing something else. I read that plumbers earn about sixty pounds an hour. But then I’d have to do an apprenticeship, and it could take years. I know I’m experienced with shit – I have to take such a lot of it here – but I’m the first to admit I’m not very good with my hands and all those spanners and things are very intimidating …”
Magnus was interrupted by the arrival of the Vice-Chancellor who ordered a sandwich and coffee, stopped to have a word with the Dean, and sat at a table nearby. He was carrying a copy of
. Silently he ate his sandwich, and flipped through it.
“Hey,” Magnus said. “Maybe he does have a sense of humour after all.”
“I don’t think so, Magnus. He’s simply looking to see if there are any articles about him. He’s terrified of bad publicity.”
After lunch, Magnus and I walked together to the staff meeting in the Great Hall. On the way, we passed by the Student Union. Several undergraduates were milling about the entrance including Lisa. She was leaning against a pillar smoking a cigarette and waved. “One of your students?” Magnus asked.
“Some girl who wants to see me this afternoon,” I replied.
“She’ll catch a cold in that outfit,” he observed. “Can’t understand students these days. Why do they expose themselves like that? I guess they think it attracts men …”
“I suppose it does.”
“Better watch out then,” he smiled.
About a hundred lecturers from all the departments had
in the Great Hall for the meeting. Like the Senior Common Room, the walls were panelled in dark oak and portraits of previous vice-chancellors were scattered throughout the room. For all their academic gowns and mortar boards, they did not look an impressive lot. Dr Wanda Catnip, the heads of each department and the Vice-Chancellor sat behind a large table on a platform in the front. Wanda stood up, put on her
which hung on a chain round her neck, and introduced the Vice-Chancellor who, she said, wished to address all of us concerning the RAE.
Magnus, who was sitting next to me, groaned. “Bloody Hell! The man is obsessed!”
The Vice-Chancellor stood up. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “This year we are currently preparing for the RAE, which you all know about. I can’t stress enough the importance of this. Our funding depends on the results. We want to do even better than last time.” He then went on to explain that at the initial stage, each research-active academic would be required to submit a list of publications for consideration. These would be evaluated by referees from outside the university.
“That leaves me out …” Magnus muttered.
“Then,” the Vice-Chancellor continued, “the head of each department will meet with all colleagues to have a preliminary discussion about the suitability of their submissions. These meetings will be arranged by next term. In the meantime, you should think carefully about selecting your best pieces of work. This will help enormously.”
Wanda took notes while the Vice-Chancellor spoke. Her eyes narrowed as he outlined what would happen if a decision were made to leave someone out. That individual, he explained, would be required to teach more undergraduates and
to compensate for the loss of income. It might mean taking on summer school duties.
“That means me,” Magnus lamented.
When the Vice-Chancellor finished, Wanda asked if anyone had questions. At the back, Philip McGregor, one of the oldest members of the university, put up his hand. “Vice-Chancellor,” he asked, “what if your department doesn’t want to
someone’s research? Is there an appeal procedure?” Philip McGregor was a Senior Lecturer in Physics whose career had been held up because he produced textbooks for A-level
. He had just written yet another introductory guide which had had a rather unflattering review in the
. Even so, his books were said to have enormous sales, and he and his wife enjoyed a nice little extra income from them.
The Vice-Chancellor explained that every opportunity would be given to those who felt they had been unfairly treated. A
appeal committee had been established. Outside opinions would be sought from experts. He stressed that it was his hope that everyone would be able to be included.
“Fat chance!” Magnus moaned.
The meeting continued for another half an hour. Wanda explained in detail the procedure for submitting work to the Research Committee. Her Northern accent became more
, which was a sure sign she was enjoying herself. When it was over, Magnus came to my office for coffee. We passed by the chapel, climbed the stairs and went down the long corridor leading to my room. Magnus slumped into an armchair as I put the kettle on. “You know,” he said. “I don’t really understand why you want to continue here. You’re not like me. Your father made a fortune with his frozen food business; you’ve got plenty of money. You’ve married into the aristocracy. You’ve got a beautiful house in the country. You’re a member of a London club. Why waste your time in this stupid place?”
“I like it.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I like the undergraduates.”
“I like the postgraduates…”
“You really are mad.”
“I like doing research.”
“You could do it at home.”
“Anyway I like my salary. I like the feeling I’m earning my living and being useful to somebody. And the stress is probably good for me. I’d be even fatter than I am if I just stayed at home.”